Magnum in parvo

The rest of the world is blurry in my peripheral vision. For a moment, I catch sight of a flash of white shirt which I belongs to a boy I know. But here and now I register it only for a second, as part of a kaleidoscope of shapes and colours, fuzzy and out of focus. As I walk confidently through this giro, my eyes are fixed right here, on the tiny triangle of skin exposed by the shallow V of his T-shirt, a few tufts of escaping hair, a freckle toffee brown against the skimmed milk whiteness, like a speck of nutmeg in a cream sauce, and the U shaped sternal notch. I cup his shoulder blade firmly in my hand, focusing on the movement of his back, reflected in its subtle changes of position, in the sliding of muscle against bone. I swing round into a parada and feel the indentation of his leg as it tapers to the ankle. My own foot nestles into the hollow above the bony protrusion of his fibula and sweeps lightly upwards.

Then we are in close embrace again: his hair is tickling my face, a curly curtain of warm strands. I feel like a hiker deep in a forest: fronds and foliage brushing against my skin as I enter a narrow tunnel of vegetation. His left hand is firm in my right, fingers curling, palm pressing against mine as if to force out the air and form a vacuum seal, to glue us together. I twist against him and roll across the firm undulations of his chest in a back ocho, like a stamp rolled carefully over paper, inking its contours evenly onto the document, catching each edge and filling it with colour. It’s crowded tonight: our world is small. We have one little circle in which to move. We twist and turn and chase our own tails, two snakes swallowing each other, planets circling an invisible sun, a twin trident curving around, a double helix, a Moebius strip, an infinity symbol. Infinity in a grain of sand, in a tiny patch of polished wooden floor. Pivots are tight and precise, we turn on a sixpence, like a pair of thoroughbred horses. And every gesture has to count. Here, where I tap my foot lightly against his shin in time with the triplets in the music. There, where I flirtatiously slip my free foot between his and rub the inside of his ankle in a playful dotted rhythm, a dancer’s syncopated Braille. There is no room to express the strong accent with a large movement. Instead, I let my free foot whip around the standing one at ankle height, as he leads a boleo, and give an additional abruptness to my movement to catch the music’s accentuation.

Motion is restricted here. What was a gas has turned to a thick and viscous, slow-flowing liquid and threatens to become a solid with atomised couples vibrating in place, jostling each other but unable to move freely. So instead of space we have only time. The long drawn-out violin note makes me want to send my free foot out tracing an ear-shaped rulo on the ground, like the travelling lover in the valediction. But these compasses have to stay almost completely upright. I just let my upper body lift instead, like an inhalation before a sigh, and try to signal the lyrical legato line with an expectant torso.

Less is no longer more. Less is all we have. We have only a discarded orange here, already juiced. We will have to squeeze hard to get the last drops onto our tongues. We are twin Helen Kellers, turning sound tactile, trying to express everything in a touch: listen! look! — but, if you cannot, feel, feel, feel. My eyes are shut now and my arm is wrapped around his shoulders like a neat, tight ribbon on a parcel, tucked in like a hospital corner, with no protruding edges, no awkward elbows sticking out at an angle. I am making myself, making us, efficiently small. We’re cogwheels in a clockwork mechanism, moving and turning with the rest of those on the floor, synchronised swimmers in a crowded pool.

We used to believe the universe was sparse: with vast empty distances between stars; the cell nucleus an apple in a huge, echoing, vacant barn with tiny electrons whizzing around like supersonic flies through the empty space; the genome largely littered with junk, with only a few readable genes. But now we know that the cell makes the Tokyo subway look like a desert; that the atom is smeared fuzzy-full with electron clouds; that the genome is a complex program embedded with a million macros, every one of them busily coding, coding, coding; that the universe is thick and heavy with dark matter. That there is no emptiness — there’s fullness, claustrophobic fullness, everywhere. Every last space is already taken.

In three dimensions, everything is occupied. I feel a jolt through his body. We’re like atoms in a metal, sharing an electric charge which ripples through us. But we have the fourth dimension. We can differentiate our times: step faster here and slower there, drag out this movement of the free leg, waiting to slide the top of my foot onanistically up my own calf before stepping over, touching his foot, one two three AND two — footsie beneath the crowded dining table — rooting myself and refusing to move here, in respect for the music’s emphatic paragraph break.

I’ve always loved the intimacies of high season. The way in which the crowds of dancers around you force a focus not on travelling or traversing, but on the small circular world of the couple, the chalk circle within which we conjure, Faust and Mephistopheles in the library. My world is bounded by the leader’s body. Had we but world enough and time we could be coy, but now I need to touch him, feel him, sense him. It’s a vegetable love without the tangy umami, without the unsubtle tastes of meat. A place in which every gesture counts and what movements lose in size they gain in meaningfulness. A dance shrunk down to us, just us.

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A Warning on International Men’s Day

I feel I should warn you, my women friends. Don’t dance tango if you love men. If you’ve always had a soft spot the size of Jupiter for our heterozygote companions. If you’ve always enjoyed male company and friendship and love to hear a masculine point of view. If you are a committed feminist at least partly because you have complete faith in men’s ability to act fairly towards women, to overcome prejudice and discrimination and be our equals, friends and allies. If you hold them to high standards because you know they can meet them. If you don’t believe in “women and children first” because a male life is worth as much as a female one — but are delighted when you receive piropos and have doors opened for you (though you don’t require it, by any means). If you’ve always been boy crazy, like me — don’t dance tango.

Because you will spend nights like this one: nights when every man embraces you tenderly and warmly; when you know that those lovely smooth giros were the result of many hours of practice and now you are the beneficiary of all that care and effort; when you feel their cheekbones lift in smiles as you decorate and play because they are delighted by your responses, because they intuitively understand how you love to express the music; when you feel the whooshiness of a step that ends just just when the music suggests — boom! — and you know that they are listening intently, carefully facilitating your both landing on that beat exactly with the music and together; when every part of their dance is focused on the quality of your pleasurable joint experience; when they are sad because their team lost and they convert that mild sadness into a lovely tender melancholy which perfectly suits this Di Sarli.

If you love men, stay away. Don’t come to El Beso on a Sunday night. Don’t embrace those Argentines (and a few lovely foreigners). Don’t dance tango. And then you’ll be safe. You’ll be heart whole.

This post first appeared in Sugar Mountain Land. 

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Proofreaders and poets


— Who are you?
— Don’t puzzle me.
(Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy)

I’ve been musing on some differences between training and dancing, for followers. Lately, I’ve been acting as a class partner in private lessons with a friend. The arrangement is quite clear and explicit: the lessons are for my friend. He is working with his teacher on his leading skills. I am primarily there to help his teacher demonstrate movements and for him to practise them on, the idea being that I am a competent enough follower to respond appropriately to the signals they are sending, a kind of radio receiver, a mirror that might have a few silvered age spots but still reflects you back faithfully enough to shave by it. (Don’t worry, I also study, separately, with my own teachers; I receive a lot of professional feedback on my own dancing). In these classes, I attempt to follow as precisely as I can. I still wouldn’t describe this as passive: it requires a degree of concentration and attentiveness that seem to me to be the opposite of any kind of relaxed zoning or blissing out or just being carried along. It feels more like marking an opponent in netball. And I have to employ my full tool box of technical skills as a follower to be able to do justice to the teacher (the wonderful Carlos Boeri)’s dynamic, exciting, but minutely precise dance and my friend’s attempts to follow his instructions and reproduce the movements with pedantic exactness. Later, he will incorporate them, of course, into his own way of dancing, his own personal style. But, for now, we’re not dancing, we’re training.

Following this way is a high level listening skill, one I think is highly worth developing. And I enjoy the classes a great deal too. But it isn’t dancing. My friend Deborah Bowman describes this kind of following as being like reading someone’s words back to them, so they can see how they sound. And I do feel a bit like a proofreader. I’m there to scour the text so carefully that I will spot the tiniest missing comma or typo. But it’s not the way I *dance* — even with my friend or his teacher, both of whom I also frequently dance with socially. Dancing as a follower feels more like being handed a poem to read aloud: of course, I’m not going to just drone out in the words in a robotic voice; of course, I’m going to add feeling, accents, inflections. I’m going to put body and soul into it, as any good actor would. I’m going to take those words and make them my own. And that’s before I add decorations, which are like little interjections and commentaries on the text, more than that, they are little contributions that will be incorporated into it, suggestions for how it might continue. Because, in fact, this isn’t a poem that’s been handed to me. It’s a poetry slam and we are jamming it. We’re writing this piece of verse together, as we go along.

When you’re dancing, really dancing, as a follower, there are a million moments at which it’s actually hard to tell whether something was led or not. I’m not talking about the directions and the steps. I’m not referring to mistakes and confusions. I mean, for instance, that when I pause very emphatically, right there, at the end of that phrase, for instance. Did I do that because you did, because I felt your body preparing to do so and I responded unconsciously, as I’ve been trained to do and which is the way of least resistance and feels as natural as water flowing downhill? Or did I do it because the music told me to, because I was responding to that? Did you, the leader, pause there because you felt me do it? Were you responding, consciously or unconsciously, to my movement? Or were you going to pause anyway, but gave it a little extra oomph, a little additional rootedness, because you felt that movement in me? Or was it the other way round? Neuroscience experiments have demonstrated that we begin preparations to move our hand just a fraction of a second before we take a conscious decision to do so, suggesting the eerie conclusion that it’s the movement of the hand itself that makes us decide to start moving it and not vice versa.

So I would say that the two things — responding to your partner and responding to the music — can be separated out for training purposes, to a certain degree, but not when dancing. The dance is way more complex than that. In good dancing, they fuse and blur all the time. When I’m doing certain kinds of training, as in the lessons described above, my conscious aim is to mirror and copy without adding input of my own. I’m trying to reproduce what the leader is signalling. When I’m dancing, my feeling is frequently *primarily* of moving with the music, of adding as much feeling and musicality as I can, of letting the music be my leader and guide, letting the musicians tell me exactly when and how to step. But, oddly, I often find that it’s when I feel most lost in the music that I also feel most together with my partner. As in the neuroscience experiment, none of the dance really feels like a choice — it feels like a willing response: to the needs of my own body, to my partner, to the song. But, although I’m letting myself be guided all the time, I feel completely free — as free as I feel when I ‘decide’ to move my hand through the air. It’s richer and more complex than a simple active/passive dichotomy would suggest.

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This Story

Guest post by Deborah Bowman

When we’re dancing, you and me, you in the man’s role and me in the woman’s, we’re telling a story. It’s an old old story, this tune, this tango, as all tangos are, something like a myth or a parable or a fairy story; look around us and everybody’s telling it, everybody in their own way, all differently but it’s always the same story no matter what details we pick out and hold to the light, what we skim over because that bit doesn’t get us or we don’t get it. For now. (But tomorrow we’ll be telling it with someone else – to someone else – and other things about it will suddenly snap into focus, become the whole point. And we’ll never get to the end of telling this story and this story will never get to the end of telling us, and that is why you, and I, and all of us here in this room keep coming back to this storytelling we call tango.)

This story that we’re telling together tonight, you in the man’s role and me in the woman’s, let’s say that the way it’s told, because it’s the way we tell things in tango, is with words and pictures. As if in words and pictures. You’re doing the words and I’m doing the pictures. I like to think of it this way because it gives me a way to explain the unhelpfulness and the deceptions of that word decoration, or the equally bad adornment; the way it seems to be an accurate description but is in fact a way of limiting and disguising and misdescribing what I do when I dance. It gives me a way of explaining what I really do, and some of the things I’m asked and expected and invited to do as well.

You’re doing the words and I’m doing the pictures and there are many ways in which that can work; a whole spectrum of ways, from ones in which I play almost no part to ones where – I’ll come to that later.

In your place, some men – a very few – make it very clear to me that they don’t actually need pictures; this story they’re telling is more like a philosophical treatise or a textbook, it’s very closely argued and complicated and perhaps there’s very occasionally a diagram they need here or there but when it comes to figure 11b they will specify when and where and how big and exactly how it fits in with their text. They will use me to draw it. For these men I am supposed to be, what? an instrument, a reader, an audience, an appreciator. They’re very technically skilled but for them my reactions and limbs and physical presence and individuality only make me an inconvenience, I am simply what’s theoretically necessary for their story to happen. What I have to say about this plot, then, my version of this story, happens in my head, danced secretly, because any contribution I make will be felt by them as graffiti, a scribble in the margins, a defacement spoiling what they had planned. I dance the tanda, I say thank you, I watch them tell their next story to their next listener. I have missed something, perhaps; perhaps something missed me.

When leaders are just beginning to dance they want to ‘leave space for the woman to express herself’ but this is difficult; beginners are struggling to find their own way of storytelling, struggling just with getting the words out, building up their vocabulary, the rough edges of what’s going to be their style. What a beginner does is this: as soon as he feels that I’m drawing, picking up on his words, suggesting an interpretation of them, he stops, he leaves me a whole page to do whatever I want. When I’ve finished he picks up again from where he finished, because he can’t yet pick up on where I’ve finished. Later, he’ll be able to do this and we might take it in turns. We’ll get to know each other and we’ll get to trust each other. This is how you learn this storytelling we do; it’s how I learned my own storytelling – here’s a page, what can you do, what can you do with what the words have done, what can you give back to the words? Fuck, I messed that up. Try again. We tell our stories to each other. We try out different versions, get to like some more than others. Shakily at first, then with surer lines, more control, a bigger vocabulary, more finesse in taking over and handing back. Every so often one of us gets into a rut and the same phrase keeps cropping up, that squiggle again. That squiggle again. When this happens we laugh, take the piss, we get over it, it disappears or it becomes part of us.

Walter Benjamin writes that storytelling ‘sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him’; that ‘traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel’. But the clay also clings to the hands of the potter. Practising, we find out which stories go into and come out of our lives. Practising, we are growing our fingerprints, discovering that they are made up not only of D’Arienzo and Fresedo and Troilo and Caló but of all those other tellers who make their stories part of us as we tell them to each other tanda by tanda.

Some men, at an intermediate stage in their tango lives and perhaps, if they get stuck as some do, for the whole of their tango lives, stop learning like this and do something very different, a little like the textbook-writer but far less skilled, less elegant, more graceless in all senses. Here I am allowed on the same page as their writing; look, just here, in this box with a caption under it. Don’t go over the edges. After another paragraph, another box, also captioned. Don’t go over the edges. They are all the same size, these boxes, and there are only four or five captions, which do not relate to the (not very many or very interesting) words of the story they are telling or to the plot that I can hear. Within the space of the box I am allowed to ‘express myself’ but if I don’t obey the caption, if I dare cross the boundary, there will be a laugh more or less offended, more or less hostile; there will be words like: Who’s leading, you or me? (In describing this I don’t mean to attack men: there are, of course, women who stop learning in exactly the same way, and who scribble the same few unrelated motifs at random all over the words no matter what the words.) I dance the tanda, I say thank you, another woman will be ushered into the little boxes, perform her captions as instructed or not, be congratulated or scolded. Two or three years later I will watch the same boxes around different women, the same praise or blame at the end of the story.

I don’t think I’ve known a good dancer who ever did that, though. The good storytellers, when they get over their first fear of my coloured pencils and start to be curious about this other way of telling happening alongside them, begin to see me as a kind of interesting marginal annotation, then an illumination, as on medieval manuscripts. Here we are, on the same page, and they don’t want to tell me exactly what to do because they can see that what I’m doing definitely relates to their words; is expanding them, playing with them, playing on them, spinning them one way or another, complicating them, underlining them, maybe later as we get to know each other undermining them, joking with them (ha! you expected one thing and you got another), playing my interpretation of this story off against theirs. As we get to know these stories better and better and we learn each other’s idioms (I like these kinds of moments; he likes that length of sentence or paragraph), my margins expand into his text, his text opens to invite my margins; he starts to offer me a big initial letter to turn into a castle or a dragon, trusts me in the gap between two words and changes the next part of the sentence according to what I drew and then –

– and then, and now, here we are, you and me, discovering tonight all over again that words are actually pictures and that pictures turn into words and that what we’re making with this story we both know so well is something which can’t be separated out into its two parts. It’s for moments like this that we dance tango. Moments when it’s blindingly obvious that there’s no main structure and no secondary decoration or adornment, that instead everything is up for grabs and to be played with in our experimentation on the space of this page where we could do just about anything. Because it’s not a wedding cake is it, to be made then decorated, on an assembly line, one thing then another: it’s a graphic novel, a photo-essay, it’s Marinetti’s parole in libertà and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and it’s the Book of Kells crossed with Finnegans Wake, it’s all happening at once, it’s the oldest thing imaginable and we’re making it new right here, right now, and we’ll never get to the end of the ways of telling this story and this story will never get to the end of telling us.

Posted in Active following, Decorations, Musicality, Musings | 1 Comment


A fiction. 

He stands a little awkwardly, chest puffed out just a tiny bit, like a pigeon half-hearted about its courtship. I can feel his weight shifting around. “Oops!” he apologises. “I´m not used to standing like this.” His right arm reaches forward, rounding his shoulder, till his fingers are barely brushing against my upper back, at bra strap level, close to where my breast begins to round out beneath my elbow, where a tiny roll of flesh is squeezed into a hillock by my too tightly fastened band. A back hamster, my sister would call it, a sweet little rodent longing to bury itself back down beneath the polycotton and elastic. His left hand is frozen open in the air in a claw-like shape, like an angry mudra. When I curl my fingers around it it turns into a slippery fish. The fingers carefully hover over mine, without touching. “Hold my hand,” I instruct him. “No. More like this.” His fingers stick up stubbornly. This is the church, this is the steeple. “I´m afraid of squeezing your hand,” he says, gingerly. “Let´s try walking,” I tell him. His chest is sloping away from me. I resist the temptation to pull him closer and try to balance my body against his, feeling a bit like fried eggs in a tilted Teflon pan, ready to slip straight off and onto a plate. His head is tipped to one side, cocked at an angle, seeking mine in a touchingly intuitive gesture of care, of tenderness. I can feel the prickly scratchiness of stubble against my forehead and tiny hairs cling to my damp cheek, fuzzy and sticky with static. “Come towards me just a little more, from here.” I place my hands on his teddy-soft T-shirt and try to lift and pull his upper body forward from beneath his shoulder blades — and instantly feel his whole body tipping towards me. “Aaah!” he exclaims. “Sorry, sorry.” His arm tightens around my back. “OK,” I say. “Take your time and walk.” I feel a foot sliding forward cautiously and then a lurch as his weight follows it. A little clumsily, a little hesitantly, we are off. At first, he takes large strides with his left leg and little ones with his right. We are moving like contestants in a three-legged race.

I suppress my natural bossiness, my urge to correct everything, to gently roll his left shoulder back, to root his hips downwards, settle them in the oval bowl of his pelvis, curl his fingers around mine, softening them from square to rounded brackets, lift his fluffy head which is drooping sideways towards me, like a wilting dandelion clock. I seal my lips, let him try to find his own pace, his rhythm, his stride. As if I were riding a skittish horse. “Transport all your weight at once, that´s it,” I say, in a trainer´s soothing voice. For two perfect steps he gets it and I feel him moving through the space, clearly, confidently. I stroke his back for a moment, in just the tiniest caress. And then I giggle, smirking like an apologetic Japanese man, to try to remove a little of the meaningfulness from the gesture. I´m a doctor, I tell myself. I´m a physiotherapist. I´m a coach. There are so many professional ways to touch a body, so many impersonal, objective, investigative, disinterested ways. My gaze is diagnostic — I can see him sitting heavily into a jutting trochanter as he changes weight — and my hands are like a lecturer´s, operating a laser pointer. I touch the side of my own hip, press it gently upright, gesture to him to do the same. “Relax here.” I gently press down a hiked-up shoulder, feeling like a potter carefully moulding a wobbling tower of clay. He is an assemblage of parts, like a old junk drawer full of forgotten Allen keys, mysterious IKEA components, rubber bands and petrified sticks of chewing gum. And we are arranging it with OCD-ish precision: paper clips here, receipts there, tossing old bus tickets into the wastepaper backet like amateur basketball players.

“Let´s try the walking again,” I suggest. I am fumbling a little, conscious of him watching, waiting, as I search my iTunes library, crouching awkwardly by the table, pencil-thin heels jutting out behind me. His head is tipped upwards, looking out of the high window at the expanse of grey skyscrapers beyond. I choose an early song with a simple predictable pulse. it doesn´t matter what meanderings happen in between, what circuitous routes De Caro traverses with his monstruous strident violin. His legs feel trembly and his hand is shaking just the tiniest bit. “I´m sorry,” he says. “I always feel a bit nervous when I´m dancing with a teacher.” Verri´s voice is defiantly carefree. I´m a dancer, through and through. It´s the typical song of the commitment-phobic eternal bachelor, Peter Pan with Brylcreem. While they are sighing in my arms, I´m only thinking about my steps. “Relax,” I tell him, again, helplessly. But I am concentrating hard myself, on calming the wobbly feeling in my stomach, the slightest teeter in my heels. My body seems to want to insist that this isn´t just work. Something in the faint, salty scent of his neck, a few centimetres from my nose, in the big paw so awkwardly floppy in my hand, in the reassuring flatness of his chest, in his very masculine clumsiness and unawareness of his own body, his sheer undancerly lumbering maleness, something is suggestive of a more basic meaning, of my proximity to the source of life.

“You need to turn towards your partner here,” I tell him. “Focus on me. Communicate with me, be aware of where I am at all times.” It sounds suddenly needy. I feel a bit like the classic older seductress, initiating the deliciously nervous, stammering, acne-scarred geek boy, the whore in the room above the saloon, unhooking my bodice in the dim curtained light, Humbert Humbert jiggling the redhead on his knee, let´s play horsey, underpants sticky with secret secretions. In any relationship of unequal ages, surely the older person is always the weaker, the more desperate, the one with the deeper, hungrier needs. Is this what I have become? The teacher of embraces, a cunning prostitute-in-reverse, preparing young men for the real thing, for the freely-sought dances with women thirty years younger, women with nose rings and flocks of tiny stick-figure birds inked in black over their shoulders, with shiny eyes and glossy ponytails and naked waxed vulvas, plucked bare like chickens. In my fifties, instead of babysitting my own son´s children, I´m here. In Buenos Aires. Exchanging touches for money, but, in the topsy-turvey world of tango,  at least they pay me. For now.

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Meaner beauties of the night

A fiction

We’ve been sitting here for a while now, in a long sad row. My legs are crossed tightly, awkwardly, like a Hebrew letter written in a narrow sans serif font. I have to point my toes like a ballerina and draw my foot in when someone brushes past. I shift surreptitiously in my chair, massaging a chubby buttock against the wooden slats. And then I spot him, walking across towards us with confidence, the corners of his mouth twitching in readiness to smile. I sit upright in my chair and uncross my arms, make my own lips curl upwards, raise my eyebrows just a little in what I hope is an alluring, expectant expression. “Hello!” he exclaims warmly, bending down, brushing feathery-moustached lips lightly against my cheek. “Great to see you.” But he is already looking away, eyes ahead, walking the gantlet, trying to escape our glances unharmed, a knight braving a frighteningly eager line of females, a Gawain beneath the coverlets, with a dozen Ladies at his bedside. Lizzie shoots out a hand, catches his forearm expertly as he passes, like a footballer’s foul, like a prankster tripping a  friend. “Hey,” she says, “Don’t you want to dance?” He beams. “I was just going to get a drink. But we’ll definitely dance later,” he promises. “Ladies.” He nods at no one in particular and scuttles off.

It’s like being part of a Greek chorus. Opinions are offered, judgements are made, criticisms are honed. Skirts are smoothed down at intervals. And, occasionally, there are suppressed sighs. At least I have someone to chat to. Although I sometimes feel like one of Macbeth’s witches, ready with prophesies and curses, but distant from the real centre of power, exiled from Glamis, far from the throne. Tanda after tanda passes in tedious succession. I try to blend out the shiny happiness of the women who are in men’s arms, try not to look at the smiles, the closed eyelids, fluttering open at the end of songs, the  expressions of someone waking from a delicious dream. It’s been an hour now.

Sean is still standing in the corner, ready to nod his head vigorously in response to any pair of female eyes accidentally pointed in his general direction, like a nodding dog on a dashboard that is somehow remote controlled by eye beams, its waggle-dance set off by the lightest and most oblique of glances. Would his embrace be better than nothing? I consider for a moment. But my right arm still aches from his wrestler’s hold and I cringe at the memory of the twinges in my lower back as he whipped me back and forth in boleos, as if my spine were a long piece of rope and he a valiant cowboy lassooing cattle.

The few men who walk by seem to avert their eyes as they pass. Their pace suddenly quickens, they are in a hurry to get to — well, where else except to those lithe young women, the ones with the swirly ink on their upper backs, the glimmer of tiny diamonds in belly buttons, the long silky hair, the big doe eyes, the short skirts revealing caffe latte coloured bambi legs. I can’t help feeling that this is the dunces’ corner, the grandmas’ neighbourhood. The cool kids are over at that cafeteria table, in that corner of the playground, over there, sitting swinging their legs nonchalantly over the edge of the wooden stage, clustered together, safety in numbers.

I once sat among them, at the big round table, hoping that it would help. Within five minutes, one of the handsome young men, he of the sleek feline walk, was smiling at me, slightly but unmistakably. I leaped up, eyes glistening, ready to dive into the sweetness of his embrace. “Er, sorry, I just need to get my bag. It’s on the floor somewhere there. Would you mind taking a quick look?”

I registered to them only as a physical obstacle, like a rock in a rushing stream. They flowed around me, hugging like twins in a Shakespeare play, separated at birth but finding each other in shared joy at this milonga, eagerly giving and receiving invitations, subtly, in the briefest glimmer of a pair of eyes, in the slightest motion of a glossy-tressed head.

Ach, forget it. This tanda is a washout.  I turn to my neighbour. There’s nothing for it now but to chat, to gossip, to natter. The eager expressions of concentration are dissolving, we are slouching back into chairs, turning back to each other, resuming conversations. “Where were we?”

But Philomel is here among us, too. Her eyes are fixed, unfocused, on the dance floor, her left foot is jiggling and twitching with the music, her lips mouthing the lyrics. She doesn’t seem to mind not dancing these Di Sarlis. She sits with the rapt yet inward-focused attention of a monk, lost in a music-inspired meditation. She seems visibly relieved when the men stop approaching. And not just Sean. Her brow furrows and she averts her eyes like a bashful bride as one man after another comes up to ask her to dance. Leroy hovers in front of her, in an awkward half-crouch, waiting for her to look up and, with purposeful inattention, she is suddenly absorbed in the buckle of a Comme Il Faut, then rummaging in her bag for a fluff-covered peppermint, paying no more attention to him — in fact, rather less — than to a brick wall at the end of a cul de sac. 

We are polar opposites, like people on different hemispheres. The first song of the tanda is our spring. A dozen Bagpusses come to life and stalk their prey. Suddenly, we are sitting up, eager, active, keen, eyes glinting, bottoms poised on the edges of seats, ready to spring up and catch a favoured quarry, a good dancer. And, when the tanda is in full swing and everyone is paired up and the dance floor is full, we turn away in frustration, wrapping ourselves more closely into shawls and cardies in the winter of our discontent and forgetting tango to discuss Dierdre’s daughter-in-law and the house that went up for sale in Northeast, and my mother’s gallbladder operation. Whereas Philomel seems to shrink into herself as the tanda starts, pulling her sweater closer round her, fixing her eyes on the ground, folding her arms forbiddingly, shuffling back in her seat, avoiding all gazes. And, once the danger is over, if no one has asked her to dance, she is all beamy smiles, and relaxed open-armed receptiveness and glimmering eyes and hummed phrases.

Except when he is here, as tonight. The rituals of tango are oddly counterintuitive. We, the ones he doesn’t want to dance with, are greeted with bear hugs, back stroking and real, moist two-lipped cheek kisses. But to dance with her, he retreats to a certain distance and courts her only with an intense gaze that turns into the discreetest head-cocking motion when she spots him. Jayne leans in towards me. “He’s dancing yet another tanda with her.” “Such a snob,” says Kate. “Men — they’re always thinking with their dicks,” adds Lucy. But I spotted it, the brief moment of mutual recognition. The secret handshake, the tiny tattoo, the codeword they exchanged. He knows that she knows that he knows. That only one thing matters: the pleasurable rites of the dance. It’s not all about age. It’s not about personality or about being nice. It’s about a certain earnestness, the union of two believers, of two devotees. And I can imagine that he must find it hard to dance with anyone else after her. She shines here. Like a descant voice soaring above the melody line in a hymn, like the full moon turning the stars pale, obscuring those glimmers which caught our attention more with their number than their light.

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Dancing with your whole self

Republished from Sugar Mountain Land.

Some people take a while to find their tango, to move with ease and confidence, to lose their awkwardness, their tension, to stop gingerly feeling their way feet first, craning the head forward, stiffly holding their partner a few frustrating centimetres away from satisfying torso contact. And, suddenly, something clicks, something changes, there is some deep somatic insight.

I saw that tonight, as my friend the bushy-haired young philosopher, the love child of Byron and Kierkegaard, stood beautifully upright, casually dapper in his half-buttoned jacket and as he bounded through the D’Arienzos with exuberant and puppyish enjoyment, big chocolately eyes glinting with pleasure, Tippex-white shoes flashing in the dim lighting of Baires’s grungiest, most divey, most hippie-ish venue with its pock marked floor and watery gin and tonics, the cold whiteness drawing attention to his much cleaner, more precise steps.

And felt it in the softness of his embrace as I sweated a little, face buried in the lush shrubbery of his hair. Felt it in his characteristic double time runs which extended playfully through phrases, enjambements of the dance, and in the defined, clear full stops when his little bursts of speed ended, perfectly in synch with the music. Suddenly, I felt, that, as the song says, tango suited him. And he suited it.

“Dance with your whole self,” you told me once [in a lesson], he reminded me. “But I only meant ‘change weight fully, don’t reach for steps from the hip’, as you were doing back then. I didn’t mean anything metaphysical,” I explained. “Well, but sometimes the metaphysical image is what helps,” he said. And perhaps he has a point. It’s hard to get past the many psychological obstacles to dancing well: the futile struggle to control another person, who can’t be controlled, that makes leaders grip or squeeze or manhandle; the anxiety that makes us look down, that makes us feel our way blindly with our toes, like a man testing thin ice; the inability to relax the body which makes us poke our heads forward, turtle style, or hold the other person at an awkward angle.

But if you can get past that, you’ll reach the moment at which the movement feels as joyful as breaking into a run through sheer exuberance. And your eyes will twinkle and your feet will beat out the syncopations as precisely as a flamenco dancer. And you will stand more upright, look more straight ahead, hug more warmly and sensually, in real life too. And then it will feel like the most natural thing in the world. And instead of being a source of nerves and worry and self-doubt, the confidence of your movements, the playfulness of your dance, will start to seem like the way you have always wanted to move. The place where you are strongest. Where you can most clearly and skilfully express yourself. Where your whole self comes alive.

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